Two quickie personal announcements (the downside of having a not-in-service newsletter, which I’m working on resurrecting):
Check out the March/April issue of Writers Digest Magazine. Above the cover banner is the header: “The Plot Thickens: A Step-by-Step Guide to Subplots.” Once inside you’ll find three articles on this topic, one of which is by yours truly.
I’m on Page 60: “Using Subplots to Enhance Subtext.”
Because I’m all about the subtext these days.
Also, click HERE to see the new covers from my new novel (“Deadly Faux,” also shown in the right hand column here) and four of my five backlist novels, all to be published/republished later this year, and one in early 2014, by Turner Publishing.
On to “Side Effects”
(NOTE for those who haven’t yet seen the film: spoilers follow. Reading this won’t compromise your learning experience – indeed, it may enhance it – but it could rain on your popcorn experience.
In preparation for the deconstruction, which will launch a week from Monday (2-25), I took my iPad to the theater this week to prepare. Seeing it a second time is even more illuminating… you’ll want to do just that after the deconstruction gets in your head.
You just may be a completely different storyteller when that happens.
Why? Because – and this is just of many examples – you won’t believe the utter preponderance of foreshadowing that peppers all of Parts 1 and 2 of the film (up to the Mid-Point, and even beyond that). The complex plot, which seems to entirely shift lanes just when you think you’ve got it nailed, is completely without logic holes or any lack of a visible lineage… yet nobody in the place sees it coming.
I charted 94 scenes over 106 minutes. Of course, this may not map precisely to the script, because film editing often cuts scenes into pieces interspersed with cutaways and establishing shots, each of which could be interpreted as a scene. Many of the scenes are lightning fast, making their point (their mission) quickly, without the clutter of chit-chat or unnecessary exposition.
A novel would most likely be constructed in an expositionally tighter way, with longer scenes that embrace some of the shorter beats in the film… but that doesn’t take away from the plethora of learning this film offers.
What You’ll Learn
Pacing – one of the essential realms of Story Physics – is something this story models clearly and effectively. The story is screaming forward from the first frame… even when you don’t notice that happening.
You’ll realize that this story – the version you see, the final version – would be impossible to “pants.” To make up as you go along. This is not to say you couldn’t (or shouldn’t) pants your way TO this final version (this being the highest goal of both pantsing and planning), but there’s no way you could assemble this story sequence without knowing the ending.
From scene one. No way. If you doubt that (entire stadiums full of organic writers still do), this film will convince you that this is true.
You’ll learn the critical role of foreshadowing, especially in a thriller that’s also a mystery (both apply here) with psychological story variables.
You’ll learn – because you’ll see it, big time – how a theme does NOT have to actually be the plot, how it emerges from the plot and the character arcs. How plot and character provide a platform for theme (there’s a lot of preaching going on in the film, but you’ll realize it’s a plot device that, coincidentally, happens to have thematic weight).
Until we read it in an article somewhere, we have no idea where Scott Z. Burns began this story journey. Perhaps with a burning need to write a story that shows us the dangers of prescription ISSDs (depression drugs). Astute writers like Burns, though, realize that such a focus wouldn’t result in an effective story in a dramatic sense… and thus, the story became about something else in that context.
You’ll see the structural milestones in play. You’ll also see how they can either be ramped up and become the culmination of a sequence of related scenes… or they can drop out of the narrative sky and explode the story into something… else. In this case, not where you’d think it would happen.
You’ll, I hope, how you can execute a necessary plot turn and insert expositional information, without having to force it into play, which can easily happen when you settle, or force an idea into being. The more complex your story (and this one is very complex), the more you need to make sure your story beats make sense.
You’ll see how the hero becomes the primary catalyst in the story’s salvation.
In fact, for a while you may not realize who the hero in this even is. Uniforms change several times, all by the design of the storytellers.
You’ll learn how and why subplots are part of the story. They aren’t side shows (though they seem to be for a while), the best subplots are there to contribute causal factors and stakes.
This is the highest calling of a subplot. Of which there are several here, all doing exactly that.
Most of all – and this is perhaps only evident after you’ve studied the story in full deconstructed detail – you’ll learn…
Why it is so important for the author to know what the CORE story is.
It isn’t the theme. It hardly ever is.
You, the viewer, will think so… and maybe the writer even thought so originally. But it turns out not to be the core story, trust me. And you’ll see, without knowing the true core story here, how one might mishandle the tricky First Plot Point…
… because the FPP ISN’T the most dramatic scene in this movie. Rare… but that’s part of why this film is remarkable. (For those cynics who think I preach a formula… suck on that one.) Not by a mile.
No, the FPP in this film does just what it is supposed to do: launch the core story, with antagonism and stakes in place.
You’ll see the four part model executed, in spades.
At 106 minutes of running time, the optimal targets for the three major story milestones are: 21 minutes (FPP)… 53 minutes (MP)… 85 minutes (2ndPP).
In the movie the FPP arrives at the 25 minute mark.
You may think you’ve seen the FPP before this, but those story beats turn out to be a handful of key Inciting Incidents. The true FPP changes the story in an almost official way, truly launching the hero’s quest and need (though the hero doesn’t know it yet, which means the viewer doesn’t either… but trust me, the writer DOES, and needs to), as well as the antagonistic force that will be shown to be opposing that quest.
The first Pinch Point is at 35 minutes in… almost dead on.
This is a tricky one, because this is actually THE MOST SIGNLFICANT STORY BEAT IN THE FILM… but in retrospect (you’ll think it’s the FPP) is clearly the Pinch Point and not a late FPP. Because this scene is a dramatic REACTION context (to the FPP), and (as you’ll understand when you’re walking out of the theater), not the launch of the hero’s problem journey (THAT happened at the FPP, where it was supposed to).
The learning being… you can weigh and execute these structural points any way you please… as long as they emerge from a narrative strategy.
Formula, my ass.
The Mid-Point creates a brand new context for the story at 58 minutes (a bit after the optimal target), after a few scenes that set it up (also something this film teaches us). The CORE story here emerges fully at this point, not before… the hallmark of a brilliant Mid-Point.
And thus we learn that we have wiggle room in this aspect of story design, and that the optimal target are important as our design paradigm, rather than our design specificity.
Shoot for optimal, then do what you have to do.
The Second Plot Point arrives at… well, how about I leave that for you to decide. See if you can spot it, and time it. We’ll nail it down in the deconstruction itself.
You’ll also see how the assigned contexts of each part (the narrative missions of each scene within each respective part) is absolutely in play. Part 1 is pure setup, and little else. Part 2 shows everybody responding to the FPP. Part 3 shows our hero beginning to be proactive and lean into heroism. And Part 4 is all about resolution, and on several levels.
It’s the story physics of that resolution that give this story its most powerful dose of story physics. The film teaches the importance of that, in spades.
If you aren’t familiar with these concepts, try to ramp up before seeing the movie. Because seeing IS believing, and this film is a clinic in all these things.
If you’ve been looking for a way to cement your knowledge of storytelling craft, and be knocked out of your seat in the process… “Side Effects ” is your two-hour, nine dollar seminar.
The deconstruction launches Monday, February 25th.
Postscript: so picture me in the last row of a nearly deserted theater, midweek matinee, one of those food-service-at-your-seat places (so I could, a) park my iPad on a table, and b) get a burger I can write off).
As the film opened I noticed I had a battery reserve of 14 percent on my iPad. Bad planning. I kept an eye on this as I bulleted every scene (the result being a scene-log I will make available as part of this process).
When the Second Plot Point hit, there was 5 percent remaining. My bullets became shorter and shorter.
When the final scene came up and credits rolled… the battery died.
Right on cue.
Like it was meant to be.